As the Fall semester comes to a close, most academics in our field are readying for the upcoming hectic conference schedule starting with SPSA in New Orleans in January, ISA (February) in Baltimore, MPSA (April) in Chicago, and ending with WPSA (April) in Vancouver. Keeping this in mind, this post discusses some decisions and challenges most of us face during this season. I start with some of the challenges my colleagues and I are facing right now.
First, as much as conferences are awesome, they require a lot of attention and effort on the part of participants and presenters. Attending conferences is an amazing learning experience for all of us, but the work that goes in to it can be overwhelming at times. For instance, I am presenting two pieces of work at SPSA and then I am scheduled to present at MPSA in April as well. That means I am working on finalizing three full-length conference-worthy papers within a space of effectively 3 months. And it is not just me, most of my colleagues are in the same boat. We submitted abstracts of some awesome ideas and now we have to hammer out solid papers to be presented at each of these conferences.
This has led to some interesting conversations I have had with other political scientists regarding how many projects and papers can be worked on simultaneously without forgoing quality. I agree with the conventional wisdom that you can only do so many conferences a year and if you do not have something solid to put out, it is better to sit one out and go back next year with something worthy instead of showing up with a half-baked idea. I feel we have all sat through those presentations where the idea is just not there yet and the presentation just makes the presenter look bad even if it could eventually pan out to be something excellent. The point I am making is – it is totally okay to focus on a few pieces of work and present at one or two conferences rather than try to show up with a not-so-great paper to every conference. That is why most of my colleagues and I are seriously deciding on whether to focus on one or two papers instead of doing quantity. Quality beats quantity every time in academia and it is worthwhile to have that discussion with yourself and your co-author.
Second, it is a worthwhile idea to have internal presentations before heading out to conferences. My grad school has a policy that requires every one who seeks travel funding to do internal presentations of their work before they head out. This helps the presenters hone in on their flaws and prepare for questions related to their research. Additionally, it helps the presenters realize where they stand with their research and whether it is ready to a point where they need to be putting it in front of the world. This is critical as at times because many of us can get too close to our own work to see its true quality.
Instead it is a worthwhile idea to take a step back and let your peers and colleagues judge your work in a grad school setting than a conference setting. Internal presentations have helped me personally pinpoint critical issues I was dwelling with my own research. In particular, I was satisfied with a paper I have been working on for most of the year, but it turns out I was rushing past the theoretical contributions of the research. The internal reviews and presentations helped me realize the mistakes I was making as my professors stepped in to pinpoint the exact issue I had to address. What really helped during these internal presentations was that I presented in front of an audience from different subfields. The benchmark was if an Americanist or a Theory person can fully understand my presentation on comparative authoritarianism, then it has merits. Otherwise I need to simplify and narrow my presentation so that everyone hearing it understands my contribution.
Finally, conference presentations are great but often those papers never seem to materialize in to publications. That is totally okay. Sometimes the first go on a paper sounds amazing but once you spend more time fleshing it out you realize it will never be as good as you want it to be. Instead of being stuck on it, just shelf it for a bit and move on. Sooner rather than later, that work will help you with a future project or paper and will be useful in creating something you can put out there as a publication.
So as Fall semester ends and holidays begin, I hope everyone ends up with great work that we can share in the next year. I will hopefully see y’all at SPSA. If not there, then MPSA for sure! Happy holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! And a Happy New Year!
About the Author: Adnan Rasool is a PhD Candidate & Student Innovation Fellow 2016 – 2017 at Georgia State University. He is also the recipient of the Taiwan Fellowship for 2017 by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ROC. Adnan is a blogger for the 2017 MPSA conference in Chicago. His research work focuses on role of bureaucracies in democratization and populist clientalistic appeal in new democracies. You can also find Rasool on Twitter and his website